After the first day was lost to the rain and the second respectfully called off after the death of Queen Elizabeth II the pre-match prediction from both captains that this series decider would produce an outright winner appeared on shaky ground.
But the fall of 17 wickets during the first three sessions of the nine available keeps things very much on track. Ollie Robinson tore through South Africa like crepe paper with figures of five for 49 in their 118 all out and England were riding the emotion inside the Oval, only for Dean Elgar’s tourists to fight back in characterful fashion.
Come stumps, as a day that began with a fitting tribute to the late monarch was ended with bad light at 6.28pm, cutting things short by an hour after a brief rain delay, England were 154 for seven and leading by 36 runs. Ollie Pope had caressed an ultimately unfulfilled 67 but through a collective eagerness to score quickly – summed up by the latest fleeting thrash from Ben Stokes – and a fine four-wicket performance from Marco Jansen, the hosts had let their position slip.
Not that this would have dampened the spirits of the sold-out crowd as they filtered towards the exits and into the night. The spectators had been central to what was a historic third day in SE11, solemnly observing the well-pitched pre-match ceremony and then delivering a stirring atmosphere as two sides duked it out.
Admittedly there were a few groans during England’s response, even if tempered by the occasion. The openers, Alex Lees and Zak Crawley, again fell cheaply as Jansen struck back with the new ball. And though Joe Root’s low-key series looked to be turning a corner when he and Pope steered England to 84 for two at tea in frictionless fashion, it was undone when the former slashed Jansen to the cordon on 23.
This was a key dismissal from which the pendulum swung back, South Africa snaring four further wickets during the evening session. The debutant Harry Brook had opened his account with a wonderfully stylish four driven through cover but soon holed out off Jansen on 12, with Stokes then squandering a life on five when, one run later, he attempted another wild drive off Anrich Nortje and edged behind.
With Pope’s latest love affair with the Oval terminated by the previously wayward Kagiso Rabada – a meek poke behind that undid his earlier stroke-play – and Stuart Broad, fresh from four wickets with the ball, clothing a pull shot behind for six, Ben Foakes will resume in the morning on 11 needing to shepherd the tail. England must stretch their lead further on this seaming pitch or see a one-innings shootout ensue.
The first standout performance had come before a ball had been bowled, the soprano Laura Wright cutting through the silence by delivering both anthems a cappella. Five languages for South Africa? The first rendition of God Save the King at a sporting event since 1952? Not a problem. But for a pair of wagtails foraging for worms on the outfield, everything else felt crisply still inside the Oval and cricket’s decision to resume proceedings in the face of possible criticism was already vindicated.
Likewise Stokes opting to bowl first still stacked up about 48 hours after the toss and it was not long before South Africa needed their tail to wag. An hour into this collective celebration the tourists found themselves 36 for six under leaden skies, Robinson having kickstarted the procession when his third delivery of the morning – a peachy length ball that nipped in – sent Elgar’s off-stump tumbling.
Robinson was impeccable during an eight-over opening burst that returned the first four wickets of his stash. Keegan Petersen was bowled shouldering arms, Kyle Verreynne nicked off to a ball that nipped away and Wiaan Mulder, one of four changes to the South African XI, was lured by the siren call of a rare wide delivery when sending a thick edge behind. This was high-quality English seam bowling in helpful conditions.
Somewhat surprisingly Jimmy Anderson had to be content with merely one wicket among the cascade, his removal of the opener Sarel Erwee in the third over following Elgar’s demise. Instead it was Broad, the first change once more, who dovetailed with Robinson in the main, drawing level with Glenn McGrath’s 563 career victims with four for 41 to leave Anderson as the only seamer above him among Test cricket’s leading wicket-takers.
After replacing Anderson and nicking off Ryan Rickelton for 11 in his first over, Broad may have initially feared his returns would not match his efforts. The 36-year-old was repeatedly beating the bat, had three DRS decisions go against him and saw Jansen dropped twice as South Africa’s returning all-rounder and Khaya Zondo, another call-up for this decider, staged a mini recovery of 36 runs before lunch.
But Broad struck straight after the restart as Zondo plopped a dolly to cover off the shoulder of his bat, before mopping up Keshav Maharaj and Nortje with minimal fuss. Robinson was the bowler to lead his teammates off the field at the change of innings, however, the 28-year-old having backed up his impressive comeback at Old Trafford with his third five-wicket haul. It was completed with a key breakthrough too, Jansen having caressed his way to 30 with some sumptuous straight drives only to flash to slip.
Jansen was not to be outdone, however. Through the return of his venomous left-arm swing – bizarrely deemed surplus to requirements in Manchester – South Africa are still very much in this already historic Test series decider.